After traveling more than 500 miles and making offerings at seven great Stupas, the KTD Stupa Pilgrimage continues to inspire pilgrims and other dharma students with its blessings.
We undertook the trip (from Albuquerque NM to Crestone, CO and back) as a way of introducing the practice of Pilgrimage and Merit Accumulation to the American Dharma community.
Our Tibetan spiritual guides, including His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, have spoken frequently about the benefits of making offerings and reciting aspiration prayers in front of consecrated images of the Buddha (and, by extension, stupas, which contain great beings’ relics). It is said that making offerings and aspirations in front of such images provides focus, blessing, and energy for our aspirations, making them more powerful and more effective.
We chose the Southwest for this pilgrimage because of the high concentration of stupas (also called choten, or “recipient worthy of offerings”) built in the area by Tibetan lamas and their students. It is said that there are 15 or more stupas in the area of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, and we decided to start our pilgrimage by visiting many of the stupas built by Kagyu masters in the area.
The overwhelming feeling we had during the five-day trip was of ease. We were very busy – we saw three stupas on the second day, one on the third day and three on the fourth day – and spent the first and fifth days traveling to and from the pilgrimage starting point of Albuquerque, NM. But despite being a little tired from the pace of the pilgrimage, everyone kept saying how happy they were, how awed they were by the stupas, and how blessed they felt to be together on their journey.
The pilgrims themselves came from all over; one US citizen came from her home in Mexico, but others came from such far-flung places as Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and West Virginia. In all, 10 states were represented.
Everyone got along instantly – even though few of the people knew one another beforehand. Our bus driver told us he was not a religious man, but he was so kind and gentle and patient, he seemed like a hidden bodhisattva. He made sure we had cold water on hot days, and that we got as close as we could to the stupas, so the older people who couldn’t walk well wouldn’t have as far to walk.
The dharma communities who welcomed us to the stupas were incredibly generous, and fed us delicious food. The people we hired to cook for us in Crestone made us delicious food. Everyone remarked about it, saying that the blessings of the pilgrimage were manifesting to us as comfortable lodgings and great food!
The weather was remarkable. Every place we visited, the people said, “yesterday (or last week, or whatever) the weather was windy and uncomfortable; today it wasn’t so windy and wasn’t so hot.”
At every stupa, we used the practice format Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche had given us. We bowed to the stupa, recited the Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya, set up a small altar with a brocade cloth, a crystal Buddha statue, silver offering bowls filled with water; incense, electric lights (flames were not permitted because of wildfire danger), and flowers. Through the help of pilgrimage volunteer Linda Yellin, we offered a vase of flowers at virtually every stupa, and a few potted plant flowers, also. Angie Martin of Colorado and her teenage children Tucker and Meadow were our Shrinekeepers, efficiently and reverently putting together the shrine and offerings as each stop.
After assembling the shrine, we offered a mandala, recited The Four Immeasurables, an aspiration prayer, and then dedications. We also invited pilgrims to make silent Aspirations of their own at each stupa.
Susan Pasternack of Woodstock, NY was responsible for carrying a bright yellow folder holding additional aspirations and photos from our patrons around the country, so we could “carry others with us” on the trip.
Ani Samten of Karme Ling Retreat Center in Delhi, NY, carried a bundle of multicolored protection cords made by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche and was responsible for touching the cords to each stupa to give the cords a special blessing. We circumambulated, and ended with Karmapa Chenno mantras and dedications. We did this at each and every stupa. But we also did some special prayers, reciting the aspirations in English, as Khenpo Rinpoche had instructed us.
When we visited the first of the seven stupas – the charming Maha Bodhi Stupa built in Santa Fe in 1973 by the students of the Nyingma master His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche – it felt as though we were in Dewachen. There was a courtyard with soft grass and shade trees swaying in the breeze, and birds sang continually with us as we recited the King of Aspiration Prayers in English.
The second stupa was the Kalu Rinpoche stupa in Santa Fe. The wind wasn’t as bad as usual, although the sun was warm. So we went into the magnificent shrine room inside the stupa and recited the Maitreya Aspiration Prayer in English. The community at the stupa made lunch for us, and we met Lama Karma Dorje and Lama Mingma Sherpa and made offerings to them. Lama Karma Dorje, who has lived in the Southwest for decades, was responsible for building (or helping build) most of the stupas we visited.
The third stupa was in the unique community of Tres Orejas, near Taos. The dharma students connected to the Kagyu Deki Choeling Stupa were exceptionally gracious, offering us tea and refreshments and making us feel welcome. In their Kangyur House, in front of a relic of Dharma Lord Gampopa, we recited the Aspiration for Mahamudra of Definitive Meaning by Lord Ranjung Dorje, the Third Karmapa.
At Questa’s Kagyu Mila Stupa and Herman Rednick Center, we recited an Aspiration for Rebirth in Sukhavati and sang a song of Milarepa translated by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso in English and meditated.
At Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang stupa in Crestone, CO, a stupa dedicated to His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, we recited the Bodhicaryavatara Aspiration, and recited many Karmapa Chennos!
At the Tulku Ugyen stupa in Crestone, again we recited King of Aspirations.
At the Guru Rinpoche stupa in Crestone, we recited the Bodhicaryavatara aspiration again, because we liked it so much!
We also visited the Temple at the Three-Year Retreat Center at Vajra Vidya in Crestone, and did meditation with Khenpo Jigme and Khenpo Lobsang. Later that day, Khenpo Lobsang spoke to us on the benefits of pilgrimage. And the night before we visited Karmapa’s stupa in Crestone, we saw the wonderful film “Eye of the Land” (about the construction of the stupa) and got a chance to talk with filmmaker Mark Elliot and his son David after the film.
As Khenpo Rinpoche had told us at the outset that one of the purposes of pilgrimage is to accumulate merit toward the purification of our negativities and the development of compassion and wisdom, we tried to make offerings to every stupa and every teacher. we also made offerings to centers that gave us food. On top of this, the Stupa Pilgrimage (the group who helped me organize the event) gave an offering to every stupa group and to Vajra Vidya. One stupa caretaker said they had already scheduled maintenance and repair of their monument, and that our donation would help make the repair work possible.
Our pilgrimage caravan consisted of our tour bus, Linda’s car, Angie’s car, and a motor home. The motor home was driven all the way to New Mexico from Massachusetts by a retired couple who wanted to see even more stupas after our tour was completed. They were so happy and so full of devotion – they inspired all of us with their joy.
When the final stupa prayers were completed and we gathered for our last group photo, we were astonished that our pilgrimage was done. Some pilgrims said they had wonderful meditations and felt great enthusiasm for pilgrimage during the trip, and are already planning to make more pilgrimages in the future.
On our way back to Albuquerque, we were surprised that beautiful blue flowers were thick and blooming on both sides of the highway. More blessings from our gurus!
Everyone in the group had been instructed back in March to start reciting the Tashi Prayer once a day for the success of the trip. A few days into the pilgrimage, I checked, and two-thirds of them had actually done it! And a few pilgrims said they planned to continue reciting it daily, to continue the blessings of the retreat.
Whether or not their prayers had anything to do with our experience during the pilgrimage, we will never know. But one thing is certain: the habit of repeating auspicious words will offer them uncountable blessings in the future!
Everywhere we went, we met people who had been part of the construction of these monuments. And the reaction everywhere was the same: the builders were astonished to realize that the structures they had built were attracting pilgrims, and that those pilgrims were using the structures that the builders had constructed to enhance their own faith and devotion to dharma. The builders’ work and their lamas’ intentions had come full circle – drawing the faithful into sacred relationship with the Buddha and gurus embodied in their structures.
“If you build it, they (the pilgrims) will come,” one stupa builder said. “Now we see that this is true!”
We dedicate our pilgrimage to His Holiness Karmapa, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, and all of our teachers – may they live long and healthy lives and benefit beings without limit!
— Lama Kathy Wesley
(All photos by Lama Kathy Wesley if not otherwise captioned.)